Tell us about Agile Academy. What's your mission? What are you trying to change or solve in the world?
Agile Academy was founded about 12 years ago after I (Salimi) left Bain and Company to explore my entrepreneurial journey. I started this startup with a friend of mine from high school, and I had read The Lean Startup after it was just published and I got so inspired. Before that, right course, I hadn't heard of Scrum or agile. This was the first time I had been in touch with agile development practices. I'm a medical doctor by education, and I don't understand why anyone wouldn't work this way. It was very natural to me. It's completely different from how most of the industry works, though.
In addition to running my own startup, I supported my parent's IT consulting company. They work mostly in the telco space, with companies like Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, and none of these companies were applying the agile practices that startups were using. I started to identify whether these practices that were making startups so strong and so successful could be applied to these larger organizations to help them become more agile.
After that, I let my partner take over most of our startup and started focusing more on Scrum, especially with my parent's IT company. They were building software themselves, and we started applying Scrum practices and saw so many benefits. We were getting products out faster, building higher quality products, and seeing our developers have higher motivation. They loved having more autonomy. For me, that was a winning combination.
I decided to become a Scrum trainer. I loved teaching and learning, so I attended a course. The teacher, Gabrielle Benefield, became my mentor by day two. We started running workshops together and, overtime, I became accredited as the highest level of Scrum trainer. That was eight years ago. Since then, I've been teaching organizations and individuals the principles of Scrum, whether it's product management, agile coaching, or full agile mastery and leadership.
“Productivity leads to wealth, and we all like to have a better quality of life. Humanity is important and sustainability, given what we are facing with the climate, is also important. So we believe that being able to scale our services will help organizations create these results. That has been the journey. That's where we want to go. And I think a platform like Disco can make the future happier.”
When did you learn what the business of Agile Academy would become? How did you start to scale?
I learned pretty quickly that the business isn't scalable if I'm just teaching individuals or individual courses. So, I built a small team around me, and our initial hypothesis was to build a training company where we have multiple trainers who work with us. Through that, we can scale by leveraging our technology, platform, marketing, and sales. We had good trainers, but the clients that we attracted — many of them in the healthcare space — worked with us because of my unique combination of experiences, being a medical doctor from the consulting world, having done product management myself – there aren't a lot of people out there that do this. They'd only want to learn from me, and that doesn't scale.
COVID, then, was a big driver for us. We started building our online courses, and every online course, similar to software, is scalable. Just the online course itself works for some people, whereas some people want live instructor-led training, but it turns out there's a huge crowd out there that likes the combination of a self-paced online course and occasional live sessions with an instructor. We piloted this model a year ago. Every week, we had to send a ton of emails and make sure that we included everyone in the list — until we found Disco. This year, we started using Disco for the coordination of our live instructor-led sessions, for the creation of our learning community, for providing a better user experience for members to know exactly what they need to prepare for before starting a course. That's how our business has evolved.
So where are you taking Agile Academy? What's your ultimate mission?
My mission, for the past seven or eight years, has always been phrased by: I want to make society more productive, more humane, and more sustainable.
Productivity leads to wealth, and we all like to have a better quality of life. Humanity is important and sustainability, given what we are facing with the climate, is also important. So we believe that being able to scale our services will help organizations create these results. That has been the journey. That's where we want to go. And I think a platform like Disco can make the future happier.
Disco customer allWomen shares a similar mission to unlock access and affordability to tech careers for women at a global scale. Read more about their efforts and how they're using our platform to achieve their goals by clicking here.
Who is the ideal Agile Academy member customer?
Everyone that we work with is what we would classify as a knowledge worker, or what I always say is a knowledge-creating worker. They not only rely on the knowledge and skills that they have right now, they constantly have to build new knowledge. We work with product managers, product owners, really anybody working on creating new things, be it software, hardware, services. We work with all sorts of organizations.
Rush is a big customer, Volkswagen, especially MAN, their truck division, is a big customer. We work with a lot of other hardware companies in Germany and a lot of retail companies like ALDI, plus others that mainly build software services. Everyone who is in charge of bringing in the methodology and helping teams, such as Scrum Masters, the agile team coaches, Kanban practitioners, all of those people are, again, customers.
The third customer group is something that we have been focusing on in the past five years is anyone in some kind of leadership position that has either to deal with teams that they lead, organizational units that they lead, or transformations that they're responsible for. When we look at our regular customer, in some cases, we start on the team level, and then subsequently, we go up and work with leadership. In other cases, the CEOs call us first so we start with the leadership level, and then it goes further down into the team levels. So, in all of those organizations where new products and services are created, the services that we provide enable them to apply agile tools and techniques.
“This year, we started using Disco for the coordination of our live instructor-led sessions, for the creation of our learning community, for providing a better user experience for learners to know exactly what they need to prepare for before starting a course. That's how our business has evolved.”
Tell us about your team. How big is it? What are everyone's roles and responsibilities?
Our team will soon have ten people. In terms of delivering services to the customer, I'm the only one (plus our network of coaches and trainers). Philip is our customer success and project manager — every customer collaborates closely with Philip to get them onboarded and answer any questions they have. We have one person in charge of search engine optimization and another joining us next week to run search engine advertising and social ads. We have one person in charge of helping me with video production and post-production. Finally, we have two developers and two designers that collaboratively work both on our platform and the learning management system.
Solid team! How does the business model work? Is it pay per course?
In terms of our live courses, Agile Academy has two offerings:
- Public courses where people from different companies book individual seats
- In-house courses where a company will pay us to run an exclusive course
Our pricing model starts with a base price of ten participants, with an additional fee per participant. We cap it at 25 people max, because we want to keep it really exclusive and foster a lot of different interactions.
We also have our online courses:
- Lifetime access to an individual course with the option to purchase six 90-minute live sessions (coordinated on Disco!)
- Annual subscription for immediate access to all of our online courses — great for Scrum masters, product owners, and agile leaders
- Company subscription for organizations to purchase a certain number of seats for lifetime access to courses as well as weekly live sessions
And how big is your community today?
It's around 7,000 to 8,000 people. Every year, I've trained around 1,000 people; some are recurring customers, but there are a lot of new people. We've moved 150-200 people to Disco since starting about a month and a half ago.
So impressive. How are you activating those 8,000 alumni? Do you host events or continue to host experiences for them?
We host a number of events, but they aren't exclusive to alumni. For example, every 4-6 weeks, I run an interview with Roger Martin about his new book. We invite a lot of our alumni to participate in the live event, but we also make the recordings available to everyone.
We give alumni lifetime access to any online course they take to support their constant and continuous learning journey. This includes any alumni who participated in the live courses pre-COVID. But we do this to also show the quality of our courses, so people who are already supporters of our live courses become supporters and, better yet, promoters of our online courses. In the past 10 years, we only grew through word-of-mouth. 80 to 90% of the people that come to my courses come based on a referral, but I think that also shows us how much potential we'll have once we really activate our online marketing channels.
We'll reach back out to a lot of our alumni and activate them and create awareness for the offerings that we have to get them more involved and more active in the community that we are now building, but also to reach other people through them.
You mentioned marketing, so we're curious about what your strategy is. How are you reaching new members?
We try to keep the boundaries as low as possible to join and to take a look at online courses. A lot of people have prejudice regarding online courses, especially self-paced online courses, in terms of quality and delivery, so we want to keep the barrier to entry low. We offer a trial and people will join if they like it, and that word-of-mouth spreads throughout their company.
We also work a lot on LinkedIn to spread knowledge, invite people and share everything on the network about what we're doing as a company. We try to really make use of the network in all kinds of areas, since Scrum is a professional skill. Sohrab also participates in speaking events and keynotes often. From those, we've earned a number of returning participants. We try to keep and leverage the momentum from those.
I (Rogowski) joined the company about a year ago, but before that I worked for seven years at Apple. Something that I really took away from there is how to deliver a premium customer journey. Whenever I'm in touch with a company, be it on our LMS system or on Disco, we always try to reply quickly and deliver a premium experience. This is a segment where we really try to position ourselves.
“This is the vision that excites me: being able to grant access to a lot of people to learn about these things and build better products in better ways.”
It sounds like Agile Academy and Disco are aligned on that same ethos. What's next for you? What is the future vision for Agile Academy and, more broadly, for learning?
As I (Salimi) mentioned a bit earlier, for the past seven or eight years, every year, I've had around 1,000 students. It has always, more or less, been that same number. I'm now 40 years old, and if I continue this for another, say, 30 years, I can reach around 30,000 people. That's not bad, but my ambition in making society more productive, more humane, more sustainable, requires a bit more than that.
So that's the big question: How can we scale?
Phillip talked about the premium experience, so that's one way. The other was through online courses. Now that we've unlocked those, we have something completely different in our hands.
A month ago, the biggest hospital in Europe reached out to us because they have around 200-250 people in project management and building services. They are in desperate need of agile training. They initially wanted to engage me for live training, but in the conversation with them, Phillip brought up our online course offering. Within a month, they have activated around 60 people to start taking our online courses. If it had just been me teaching courses, I wouldn't have been able to help them in this manner. Now, within the next few months, they're probably going to add 100 people — maybe even more.
100 people may not sound like all that much, but we're now in a conversation with the biggest port authority in the world, and they have thousands of employees. We can easily now be in conversations with organizations of this scale. With our online enablement, it has become a scalable model.
This is the vision that excites me: being able to grant access to a lot of people to learn about these things and build better products in better ways. For us as a company, it gives us more agility and the ability to make much more money than we used to in the past without significantly increasing our team size.
We agreed on a partnership a few weeks ago with one of my trainer colleagues from Nigeria. She is running a program to get 500,000 women off the streets in Africa and bring them into tech jobs. She was initially seeing if I was willing to give a few hours of my time and teach a module on design thinking. I figured — instead, we can give free access to all of our courses to all of the people that you have in your 700-person cohort right now because our product is infinitely scalable. Beyond revenue, this model gives us completely new possibilities and impact.
That's what I see as the future of our organization: having a sustainable business model but also being able to do really good things in the world.
YSpace is leveraging Disco to democratize entrepreneurship and bolster underrepresented communities to fund new businesses. Read about their mission and how they're using Disco to achieve it here
You really nailed it on the head. Creating access to learning more sustainably is so important to us here at Disco. Speaking of — when you began seeking out a new platform, what were some of the challenges you were looking to solve?
Our biggest challenge was communicating to a larger audience. We needed to solve for how we interacted and communicated with our existing members, such as:
- How to make sure not we don't forget anyone in our messaging
- How to add members to our existing community
- How to create a customer experience that is not only easy, but also fun
- How to overcome restrictions to email or message out to a large group of people
- How to include links to our recordings but also create engaging content
We were doing most of this via email before, but we realized this wasn't really a premium way of interacting with participants nor with alumni. But I (Salimi) had signed up for a few courses that were hosted on Disco, and we were interested in trying it from the participant side to see how it works. Then I started the free trial, and we immediately realized how cool it was. There's confetti when you complete a task or hit a check mark! It was really engaging. This is something that I (Rogowski) hadn't really had on my mind — in addition to properly communicating with members, they really need to be engaged. This is something that we think is greatly done on Disco.
We appreciate that. What did your tech stack look like pre-Disco? What are you still using?
Pre-Disco, everything was done on email — at least, the reaching out to the people and informing them about the next upcoming live sessions part of our communications process.
Now, we have Slack to help us to manage the community, especially when we are running a two or three day live course. On Zoom, the moment you send people into breakout rooms, the chat doesn't work, so we use Slack for people to reach out to me or chat back and forth during a course. We use Zoom for video conferencing. We use Mural as a virtual whiteboard tool. Prior to the pandemic, we didn't use any of this, because it was a live course and we had a training facility here in Cologne. Disco is now an addition to the other three tools, and we really see the value, especially as part of the self-paced online learning. I believe, over time, we will move more and more of our community from Slack over to Disco.
“A ‘wow moment' for me with Disco is the ability to duplicate courses. I can take the rough structure and adapt or tweak a little bit, but being able to duplicate that rough structure is also a great time saver.”
Why did you ultimately land on Disco?
I (Salimi) loved the participant experience. I could see that it would make a huge difference to the current experience we were providing our participants. I think, in the past six weeks or something like that, we have been proven right on this assumption. We've asked those 150 to 200 people who are currently using it what they think about Disco, and every single one of them said that onboarding was easy and the platform is easy to use. They even give us feedback on the live sessions that we run. We focus on the participants first and make sure they're having a great experience with Disco.
What about you and your staff? Can you quantify the time saved on operational and administrative tasks by using Disco?
I (Rogowski) would estimate that it would roughly save — at a minimum — 50% of my time, maybe even more up to 70%. I don't have to respond to individual requests anymore, because I can always forward to a specific point in the Disco platform.
A “wow moment” for me with Disco is the ability to duplicate courses. I can take the rough structure and adapt or tweak a little bit, but being able to duplicate that rough structure is also a great time saver.
That's huge. How has Disco enhanced the member experience? Give us three ways.
By bringing communication, interaction, and engagement to the forefront, learning becomes so much more than just a collection of knowledge — it becomes a supportive, inclusive practice backed by a deep understanding and community of like-minded individuals.